This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Wicked Wallis, Amanda Scrimgeour’s latest outing — a biography of the Duchess of Windsor — was published a couple of months ago. It attracted a long and favourable review in the Daily Mail (“a racy and scandalous tale, told with all this author’s customary wit and brio”) and a short and sniffy one in the Times Literary Supplement, which noted two dozen errors of fact and complained about the absence of footnotes.
Amanda has been writing these books for a decade and a half now, ever since she gave up her job as sale-room correspondent for The Field. The first two, Marvellous Marie (as in Antoinette) and Pretty, Witty Nell: A Stuart Romance (as in Gwyn), were historical biographies, and it was not until the publication of A Charmed Life: Riviera Days and Riviera Ways 1918-1939 that she may be said to have found her métier.
What does Amanda write about? Why, in a word or two, bygone glamour and long-vanished luxe. Josephine Baker and the Paris cabaret clubs; Tallulah Bankhead’s love life (see her My Name is Tallulah, 2013); the continental fashion houses of the inter-war era — these are her subjects, each of them adventurously and eye-catchingly written up yet at the same time treated with an immense and painstaking seriousness.
If she has a theme, aside from the raking-over of many a coal of ancient scandal, it is that we underestimate these denizens of the 1930s social circuit. In her practised hands, Mrs Simpson is “an altogether commanding figure, the epitome of poise and chic, a pied piper whose dance was faithfully followed by society’s elite” and Cecil Beaton “a cultural icon of devastating aesthetic import”.
As these extracts may perhaps demonstrate, Amanda likes a florid style. The people in her books never fall in love; they have “amorous inclinations”; their marriages are “titanic alliances of wealth and éclat”, and their dress designs “gather up all Europe in their thrall”.
History in her thronged and clamorous pages is a kind of high-class cocktail party, although one ought perhaps to note a tart analysis of various Nazi wives — it appears in The Great Seducer: Ribbentrop and his Circle, (2017) — which accuses Magda Goebbels of being “somewhat lacking in ton”.
It might be assumed that a faint whiff of the aniseed trail she has spent the last 15 years pursuing has rubbed off on Amanda herself. In fact, the reverse is the case. She is a demure if not positively dowdy woman in her early sixties whose admirers are sometimes puzzled to discover that she lives unassumingly with her equally nondescript husband in a service flat in Kensington and enjoys an annual holiday on the Lincolnshire coast.
Just now, when not keeping up her scrapbooks or turning over the tea towels in Peter Jones, she is working on a book about Diana Mosley — “a highly significant and glamorous figure” she maintains, whose influence on our national life has been cruelly under-valued.
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